WhatsApp is on something of a roll at the moment, with plenty of new functionality as it looks to maintain its market lead over Apple’s iMessage and Google’s Android Messages RCS rollout, to say nothing of Facebook stablemate Messenger and upstart Signal. And while much of this new functionality is non-core (wallpapers, QR codes) or commercial (business tags, money transfers), there are two critical updates on the way—as I reported last week: Fully encrypted backups and multiple linked devices.
Now it seems we can add a third update to that list. We have known for some time that WhatsApp plans to introduce disappearing messages to the platform’s 2 billion users. Playing catch-up with Signal, this will enable users to time-box their chats, meaning that messages will disappear after a few days. If you’re a spook or a dissident, this is a neat trick. For most of us, though, it’s pretty intense and can be extremely irritating. Searching for a piece of data that no longer exists is bound to frustrate. There’s no need for Android Messages or iMessage to jump onboard with this particular option.
But there’s one exception—media attachments. Whether it’s an image or a video, this is the data that we’re most likely to regret sending and that we most want to consign to past history, not see re-emerging later to haunt us. And beyond ill-advised videos or photos, there are also the comedic or conspiratorial media attachments we send, forwarded countless times despite the efforts of the platforms.
The latest code to leak through the irrepressible WABetaInfo indicates that WhatsApp is developing this much needed disappearing media feature. On the surface, this matches the kind of casual functionality offered by Snapchat and Instagram, but it’s actually more significant. Compromising messages are more likely to be media than text, and nowhere more so than on market-leading WhatsApp.
According to WABetaInfo, “when the user decides to send an expiring media (images, videos and GIFs), the media will disappear in the recipient’s phone, once they leave the chat. When the feature will be enabled, the user can tap the new button to send the media with the expiration… the image will completely disappear after viewing it.” All of which means you get to see the picture or what the video, but you won’t be able to forward or save it, and it won’t linger in your chat history to view again later.
What remains uncertain is whether WhatsApp is also set to introduce a Snapchat-like alert when a recipient screenshots disappearing media—always the weakness with any expiring text or media. But if you send something and then rely on a platform’s expiration feature to keep yourself from being compromised, then you probably shouldn’t have sent it in the first place.
WhatsApp use has soared under coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions—alongside other global messengers, its groups and expanded video calls have kept users in touch with one another. But I suspect that almost everyone reading this will have sent or received some humorous or viral media that would have been better with a view once and don’t forward setting.
Our chat histories will soon be safer.